Lions coach says dismissal of Joe Lombardi, Jeremiah Washburn and Terry Heffernan was his decision.
Allen Park — Jim Caldwell didn’t have a choice, whether he admits it or not. Something had to be done and someone had to go, not to salvage a lost season, but to salvage a lost quarterback.
Joe Lombardi’s offense was producing less and less, and Matthew Stafford was getting hit more and more. It wasn’t only embarrassing, it was negligent. So the only surprise Monday in Lombardi’s firing — along with offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn and assistant line coach Terry Heffernan — was the timing, on the day the Lions headed to London to prepare for their game against the Chiefs.
Why now? Or why not dismiss everyone? At 1-6, everyone is culpable, from ownership to GM Martin Mayhew to team president Tom Lewand to Caldwell and his staff, and yes, to the players. If the Lions continue to plummet, their reckoning will come — assuming Martha Ford and her family are as frustrated as some people claim.
Basically, Caldwell is taking one more (last?) shot, knowing he could be next. He said he wasn’t ordered by ownership to make the moves, but that might be an issue of semantics. No explicit order was necessary after the Lions collapsed against the Vikings 28-19, with Stafford sacked seven times. Caldwell has been around long enough to understand implicit orders and implications.
When the Lions return from London, they have a bye, and NFL teams in turmoil often use the extra week to make major changes. The Dolphins did it three weeks ago, firing Joe Philbin after they lost to the Jets in London, and they’ve gone 2-0 under interim coach Dan Campbell. Caldwell had to know his fate could be decided next week, and if he didn’t try something different, the team could try something different.
Will new coordinator Jim Bob Cooter alter the game plan and change anybody’s fate? A bit of a long shot. At 31, he’s considered a bright young mind, but has never been a coordinator. He supposedly works well with Stafford, so maybe he buys the Lions a little time. If it doesn’t work, it’s not like Caldwell had many other options.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Caldwell said. “We’re running out of time.”
He was talking about the season, but he could have been talking about his tenure here, which has crumbled after last season’s encouraging 11-5 mark. At around 12:30 Monday afternoon, Caldwell said he was evaluating everything, including his staff, but there were no changes. Four hours later, there were significant changes.
“Nothing’s ever done in a vacuum, but it’s my decision,” Caldwell said. “I’m in charge of our staff, I make those decisions. … We just were not productive.”
29th in scoring
Again, whether Caldwell was pressured to make the moves to save his job (for now) is almost immaterial. I hope he advocated them, because Lombardi and anyone working with that offensive line needed to be fired. The Lions rank 29th in the league in scoring, and Caldwell is familiar with the impact of an upheaval. He was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator with the Ravens late in 2012 after Cam Cameron was fired, and helped direct them to a Super Bowl victory.
Caldwell struck a somber tone Monday, knowing exactly how Lombardi felt, but said he long ago accepted the bottom-line nature of the game.
“I don’t feel any different than I did (starting) in 1979,” Caldwell said. “It’s a day-to-day business, always has been, always will be. We get into this business because we don’t mind that, we can handle it, it’s not a big issue for us.”
Caldwell’s day of culpability will come, barring a miraculous turnaround. At this stage, ownership might as well wait until the end of the season, because if changes are required, massive changes should be made. Mayhew can’t easily fire a coach and hunt for a new one with his own job on the line.
Picking up the pieces
So in the midst of another disheartening season, the Lions are picking up what’s left of the pieces and trying to see what fits. Caldwell expects some aspects of the Lions’ offense to be different under Cooter, but with less than a week to adjust, an overhaul isn’t feasible.
More likely, Cooter will communicate better with Stafford and scheme to his strength. Does that mean a burst of deep passes to Calvin Johnson? Well, when Lombardi tried it early against the Vikings, it worked. When the Vikings adjusted with myriad blitzes, the offensive line was lost, Stafford was pummeled and Lombardi’s fate was sealed.
Stafford bears blame too, whether he struggled to pick up Lombardi’s offense or it simply was a poor fit for him. Cooter came to the Lions last year from the Broncos and was highly recommended by Peyton Manning (as was Caldwell), and has worked closely with Stafford as quarterbacks coach.
Stafford expressed respect for Lombardi, and also sounded intrigued by Cooter’s potential.
“You feel a certain amount of responsibility as a player because you’re the guy ultimately out there pulling the trigger,” Stafford said. “I can’t tell you how it’s going to change. It’s a tough situation, but Jim Bob is an extremely smart guy, very detail-oriented. Nothing gets by him.”
Change was needed, and this is a start. To truly fix things, more changes likely are ahead.